How to inspire young women to become aeronautical engineers?

Interview by Clement Charpentreau

Iris Volaire-Joseph is an aerospace engineer apprentice at Safran Landing Systems. Concurrently, she is studying to obtain an Aeronautics and Space Engineer degree from the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM) in partnership with ISAE-SupAero. She explained to us what it meant to be a young woman in a male-dominated field.

After graduating from high school, Iris first obtained a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics. 

“When I got my degree, I decided I wanted to specialize in my passion, which is aeronautics. And so I started to search for a school, which will allow me to work, and at the same time study for what I like. I chose my current school, which is the CNAM in partnership with ISAE-SupAero, which is a great school in France.”

Iris also had to find a company willing to offer her an apprenticeship. She set her heart on Safran Landing Systems.

Aviation engineer and pilot

While she specialized in aeronautics halfway through her studies, her journey started much earlier.

“Since I was a little girl, I have always wanted to work with airplanes. I actually want to become a flight instructor.”

Yet instead of only studying for a pilot’s license, Iris decided she wanted to have a backup plan as well, choosing engineering studies for the task. It must have been a premonition, given the current crisis affecting the air transport industry. 

“I told myself, I would like to become an engineer to pay for my studies as a pilot and at the same time still work in the aeronautics field. In parallel, I am currently passing my private pilot license.”

It is this passion driving her that defines an aeronautical engineer.

“You have to be curious because you have a lot of things to learn. And you have to be curious every day with every person you meet because they have so much to teach you. You have to learn by yourself, also, because sometimes things will not be taught. And you have to be able to come up with new ideas for your company and think outside the box sometimes and to be able to adapt yourself to new situations, new colleagues.”

The woman who can do technical tasks after all 

While mentalities are slowly changing and more and more women are joining the aviation industry,  the engineering field remains male-dominated. 

“I currently work for the quality assurance customer support team. We are a team of 15 people and there are only three women.”

It might take a while for the situation to change, as even the coming generation of engineers is predominantly composed of men.

“For the first two years, we were a class of 36 students and there were only three women with me. Now that we are in the last year of study, I’m the only woman in my class. In the last year, we have to choose a specialization and we have three options: engines, electronics, or structure and material. I chose the latter. I was the only [girl] to choose it.”

Such an environment is fertile soil for sexist comments, as Iris has experienced herself.

“It’s really rare and uncommon. You can meet people who are coming from the older [generation] who can be misogynistic. You don’t have to pay attention to them, just let them talk. […] I don’t have any difficulties with my colleagues, they are very welcoming. I’m part of the team.”

“I’ve had some bad experiences throughout my journey, where people were telling me that the aeronautic field was not a field for women. And that it was not a field for women, because we were not able to do technical tasks. So I was kind of shocked. But I know that it’s a very small number of people who think like that and we do not have to pay attention to them.”

Welcoming women is the industry’s responsibility

Iris has noticed the effort in the aerospace industry to pay attention to women and be more welcoming to them. Until women can truly feel treated as equals, a long, necessary fight remains ahead. 

“I would like my industry to try to motivate more young females to join. Because I think this is the way we are going to eradicate misogyny, by having more women in the workplace.” 

As for the young people following in her footsteps, Iris has a few pieces of advice. 

“First of all, you have to be sure of yourself. You have to ask yourself two questions. Do you want to be in this field? And do you imagine yourself being in another field? If not, then you should definitely go for it. Try it. I mean, nothing is impossible, whether you’re a woman, a man, or whatever. I just think this is what you should do and go for it.”

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